Tom has helped hundreds of thousands of people around the world get leaner, stronger, and fitter by sharing his knowledge and 30 years of exercise experience.
I came across Tom’s e-book Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle five years ago when I started my fitness career. I spent days poring over the 300+ pages I printed out, convinced I had found the holy grail of body transformation. A good chunk of my 8-week program is based on principles I learned from Tom’s book, and many of the hundreds of articles I’ve written on BuiltLean.com are inspired by principles I first learned from Tom.
Just this week, Tom launched a physical copy of his best-selling e-book Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle, which is now available on Amazon with a very impressive 5 star rating. If you are serious about getting lean and staying lean, you’ll want to buy this book right now, or at least add it to your reading list.
1. How did you become interested in fitness as a career?
I first got turned on to weight training when I was a freshman in high school. I was pretty flabby and I was not naturally muscular, so when I saw Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie, Conan the Barbarian, his physique is what inspired me to start working out. I kept at it all through high school and became a big fan of bodybuilding. When I went to college and saw that you could major in exercise science, I thought that was perfect, because what could be more ideal than making a living doing something you love?
I have to admit, I did slip in college when I started partying, drinking beer and eating all kinds of junk like cheese fries and Stromboli. Twenty pounds of fat went straight to my gut. But after a while, I started feeling like a hypocrite because I was in school preparing for a career in fitness, but I wasn’t walking the talk. I knew I had to do something about it.
One day in the gym I saw these guys who were training for a bodybuilding competition. They were ripped and had the best physiques I had ever seen in person. I started talking to them, and asked them how they did it. They actually helped me. I did what they told me, and before I knew it, the gut was gone. I kept going and then I got ripped too. Then I took it to the next level and entered a competition. I won two out of three of my first contests. That’s when everyone started asking me how I did it.
So I started teaching people about the bodybuilder-style of nutrition that worked so well for me and I started training people one-on-one in the gym. I worked with hundreds of clients as a personal trainer. Then when the internet came around I worked with thousands of people online. Ultimately, I put everything I was teaching my clients into a book called, Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle , and through that book, I was able to help over 300,000 regular people get in shape.
2. You are considered one of the foremost experts on fat loss nutrition. How would you describe your nutrition philosophy as it pertains to fat loss?
My background was in bodybuilding, so if someone wants to get super lean, I borrow a lot of advanced techniques from physique athletes. But my philosophy for most people is simple and anyone can follow it, because I start with fundamentals that apply to everyone, the program is flexible to suit each person’s goals, and the nutrition is customizable. That’s my first important philosophy – that a nutrition plan can’t be too rigid with too many unbendable rules, or you just won’t follow it. That said, there are some nutrition laws and best practices everyone needs to follow for achieving fat loss.
Whether you count calories meticulously or not, the law still applies; without a calorie deficit, you don’t lose weight, so you start with calories. But you don’t stop there. There’s more to good nutrition than just energy in versus energy out. Next, you divide your calories into the ideal amount of macronutrients to reach your goal. The three macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates and fats.
Protein is important during fat loss programs because protein is the most thermogenic of all the macros, it’s the most hunger-suppressing or satiating, and it’s the most important macro for maintaining lean body mass while you’re in a deficit. I recommend about one gram per pound of body weight, give or take a tenth of a gram or two, and I recommend a protein food with every meal.
The rest of your calories come from fat and carbs. Fat isn’t inherently fattening, it’s only more calorie dense than other macros, at 9 calories per gram. A certain amount of dietary fat is important and some types of fat are good for you, like the omega-3 fats you find in fatty fish – you should include some every day. Carbs are the wild card. If you’re metabolically healthy and you’re training hard, like an athlete, you can eat a substantial amount of your calories from carbs – maybe 40% or even 50%. But some people are carb intolerant and fare better with fewer carbs, so this is one variable where customization is important.
Last but definitely not least it’s vital to think about the quality of your food, and as you divvy up those calories, you should choose at least 90% of them from natural, nutrient dense foods and aim to get the most nutrients possible for every calorie you consume. Give yourself some leeway too. If 10% of your calories are anything goes, then you won’t feel deprived and if you hit your calories and macros it won’t hurt your progress.
3. What are a few of your favorite meals, or snacks?
One of my favorites is the Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal Pancake:
You mix the ingredients until they have a batter-like consistency, coat a pan with nonstick spray, pour in your “batter,” cook on medium until one side is firm, then flip over to other side. Serve hot. Or wrap up in foil and take it with you as an on the go portable travel meal.
For a snack, I like chocolate peanut butter protein pudding: 1 plain greek yogurt, 1 scoop chocolate protein powder, 1 tbsp peanut butter and a packet of stevia or sweetener
4. What are the most common mistakes you see people make when dieting?
That list is really long! But here’s what I think is one of the biggest mistakes: focusing only on food quality or only on food quantity.
Some people focus only on food quantity. They believe that weight loss is only about calories in versus calories out and a calorie is just a calorie. On the other hand, some people focus only on food quality. They believe that weight loss is only about the nutritional value of the food, not the calories, and if they only eat health foods, they think they’ll automatically lose weight.
The truth is, if you want to get leaner and get healthier, you need focus on both – calorie quantity and calorie quality, not one or the other.
5. What are your favorite strength training exercises and why?
Barbell Squat – Because it deserves its reputation as the king of lower body exercises, if not the king of all exercises. It’s metabolically demanding and burns a lot of calories, it’s a top notch strength exercise and a superior muscle building exercise. It’s also highly functional with a lot of sports applications.
Front Squat – Same reasons as the back squat, but the front squat adds an additional level of difficulty when you have to balance the bar on the front of the shoulders. It’s also more quadriceps dominant and lets you keep your torso more upright, great for building thighs with less hip and butt involvement and less low back strain. It’s a challenge for the core as well.
Pull Ups and Chins Ups – Both are superb upper back builders and also a good example of how a bodyweight exercise can be right up there among the best resistance exercises.
Barbell Curls – Hey, I’m still a meathead at heart. Blame Arnold.
6. What are your favorite abs exercises? How often do you train abs?
Hanging leg raises are my favorite. The straight legged version with the full range of motion is one of the toughest ab exercises, but also one of the most effective. I’ll sometimes superset them with the easier version, the hanging knee up, aka bent leg raise, so when I get fatigued with straight legs, then I go right into bent knee leg raises and keep going. I train abs twice a week, same as I did even when I was competing in bodybuilding. Quality, not quantity.
7. What are your thoughts on HIIT cardio vs. Steady State cardio for fat loss?
HIIT is more time efficient and more effective in most ways as well. However, that’s not saying steady state cardio is totally worthless or doesn’t work at all, which I do hear sometimes. Lower intensity cardio burns calories and contributes to fat loss, it just takes a lot more of it (more duration/ volume) to equal the calorie burn you’d get from more intense cardio.
People who are unable to do very intense training shouldn’t worry, they will get benefits from low and moderate steady state cardio and they can use the nutrition side of the equation to help them achieve the calorie deficit they need. But for the healthy, orthopedically-sound person, especially someone who is busy and needs time efficiency, I’m definitely a fan of pushing yourself on your cardio so that you burn the most calories in the amount of time you have.
8. Should a busy man, or woman who wants to get a beach body train like a bodybuilder?
In some ways yes, in others no.
Yes, in the sense that everyone who wants a beach-worthy body should get serious about weight training. Diet and cardio alone is not going to sculpt and re-shape your body, or build muscle, if that’s your goal. Everyone should do resistance training.
No, in the sense that the busy man or woman doesn’t need to do a bodybuilder’s workout routine, which is usually more days per week and has you doing only a couple body parts at a time in a split routine. That works great for muscle size (hypertrophy) but is not as efficient for the average busy person.
There are lots of options for choosing training programs and there’s no right or wrong, because part of your choice of workout is based on your goals and personal preferences. But busy people will get the best bang for their buck with programs such as full body workouts, or if they split, something like a 2 way split (such as push-pull or upper-lower).
They’ll also get a lot out of using efficiency techniques for lifting just like efficiency techniques for cardio. For resistance training I love supersets, where you pair up two exercises and do them back to back, because you still get great muscle and strength training benefits, with little if any compromise, but you get done a lot faster.
9. Many people are yo-yo dieters and exercisers. Do you have any advice on how to finally stay consistent?
I can tell you how I stay consistent, and I’ve been consistently training for 30 years. From the very first day I lifted a weight at age 14, I considered the endeavor a lifestyle. It took me a little longer before I got my nutrition squared away, but I never looked at my training as a program I was going on for 30 days or 7 weeks or 4 months or whatever. I did set short term goals, but I knew there would always be another goal. Each goal was only a stepping stone along a lifetime journey, never an end point.
This idea got placed in my head at a young age when I was reading editorials by Joe Weider in Muscle and Fitness magazine. Joe always wrote about “the body building lifestyle.” His magazine covered competitions, where you train with increased focus and intensity for a few months to reach a peak, and his magazine also covered time-bound programs, like 6 weeks to 6 pack abs and so on. But his overall message was never a quick fix, it was lifestyle. I adopted that idea, and since strength training and eating is something I approached as a lifestyle, with the only exception being that little slip in college, I’ve never yo yo’d and I’ve never missed more than one week of workouts in 30 years.
10. Is there anything we didn’t discuss you would like to mention?
I just want to say thank you for interviewing me and thank you for the work you do. You’re reaching a lot of people online with a really positive message.